The Disappointing Language of Leadership

In March, I ran across a blog post or two that prompted me to write this for Lay Anglicana.  Ever since having a boss who was the self-styled leadership guru for the Church of England, I’ve had a great many qualms about the language of ‘leadership’ and the value of training ‘leaders’ for the church, or talking about ‘leadership’ in any way.

And over the last week or so, it has gotten worse.  Far worse.

Between a few people I follow on Facebook, including Brian D. McLaren, there has been a lot of quoting of Molly Phinney Baskette on Leadership.  One of the many (although they are all the same so one will suffice) goes like this:

“Leadership is disappointing people slowly enough that they can cope with it.”

Basically, this makes a virtue of being a crap person. And that is unacceptable.

The idea about managing disappointment is not a bad idea.  But it’s about letting people down, or people not getting everything they want.  That’s for parents worrying about whether their spoiled little babies  spend even a moment of unhappiness. That has no place in leading adults–especially not adults who are supposedly advancing on a path to spiritual, moral, and psychological maturity.  So cut this out.  Right now.

The idea comes from something I’ve known for decades.  It’s about technology not living up to expectations.  And, when I did an internship in computer systems at Canadian Opera Company in 1987, it was true.  It’s still true of technology.

But are we really going to buy that ‘leaders’ are people who systematically disappoint people? Are we going to buy that when grownups don’t get everything they want, they should claim ‘disappointment’?

I recently had an interview with a diocese about a position in mission and ministry. It was via Skype, and the first question was ‘what is your leadership style?’  Well, to tell the truth, I faffled and they knew I was faffling.  I haven’t kept up on the literature about ‘leadership style’, because I’ve yet to meet a person who talks much about his/her leadership who is any good at getting anything done.

I wish  had Molly Phinney Baskette’s work to expand on.  Because I could have told them how I planned to disappoint them.

I don’t have a leadership style.  I have an accomplishment substance. Every time I work with someone who’s promoted him/herself as a ‘leader’, I’ve spent a lot of time cleaning up wreckage.

I am disappointed in every self-proclaimd ‘leader’ I’ve encountered.  Not because I haven’t gotten what I wanted–I generally have my big-girl pants on, and am ready to compromise and negotiate and see a bigger picture than my own immediate satisfaction.

I’ve been disappointed in ‘leaders’ because they don’t in general care about what happens to those who are affected by their decisions and actions.  I’m disappointed in ‘leaders’ because too often their vision is a tunnel-vision and doesn’t have room for possibilities they might not have imagined. And the need to be ‘right’, and to be seen as a leader, is worst in the church.

Leading is not about getting people what they want.  It’s not about setting your vision out and getting them to accomplish it.  It’s about working together to find the best thing for everyone concerned, building a consensus, and having everyone share the satisfaction of workng toward it.

A few days ago, I went to a nephew’s high school graduation.  The headmaster had started working at this school the same year as this graduating class entered.  He said the most brilliant, hopeful thing I’ve heard about leadership in perhaps my entire life.

He said that you need permission to lead.  And he thanked this class of young men and women for giving him permission to lead them through the last four years

I don’t want to give anybody permission to manage disappointment.  I don’t think you should, either.

 

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